Let me make this perfectly clear: Wikipedia is the greatest online encyclopedia resource anywhere in the world – in fact, the best ever in the history of mankind. How’s that for an endorsement?

Wait? What? Are you telling me that it’s OK to use Wikipedia to help me write my research paper and essays? 

Yes and no…

But before I clarify such ambiguity, let me first delve into what Wikipedia is and what it represents (from here on in I’ll refer to it as “wiki” though the reader should be made aware that there are several different types of wikis in the world wide web. In this article, however, wiki refers to Wikipedia). Wiki is an online encyclopedia where millions of contributors provide its contents. This reality (I almost wrote concept) is nothing short of revolutionary. Wiki places the authorship of encyclopedic entries into the hands of the masses rather than at the fingertips of scholars. Wiki, thus, represents the democratization of knowledge, the collaborative efforts of millions, available in 283 languages, with over 21 million entries – and it grows everyday. The popularity of wiki continues to astound; for example, the latest data (March 2012) shows that wiki is accessed 2.7 billion times monthly in the United States alone. Unless the planet explodes, it is probably safe to state that wiki’s future leans toward the permanent.

Which is why I, mere History instructor, must address the pluses and minuses, uses and misuses of such a grand cyber pool of smarts. William Cronon, ace historian and current President of the American Historical Association recently wrote that while “the wide-open Wiki world sometimes harbors howling errors, even outright fraud, the overall quality of Wikipedia content is remarkably good.” In regard to error and fraud, we simply must admit: how could it not? The authorship of any wiki entry can be performed by any one and at any time. The only aspect that keeps the quality of wiki’s entries “remarkably good” is the rampant self-policing performed by the very masses that erred and committed fraud in the first place.

Stated simply: we must bear in mind that when we access wiki we access human fallibility. All humans are capable of fraud and error (scholars included) and we must search for these foibles when utilizing wiki as a tool of research. We must ask why particular entries exist. We must seek to understand what motivated some person to – without pay – research (hopefully), write (clearly), and post an entry opening up their work to review, scorn, ridicule, and other possible forms of cyber bullying. But we must not take faith that prior to our reading of an entry, copious amounts of self-policing already occurred so that the very article we are reading is as near sacrosanct to the truth as any medium made available. In other words we must do three things when reading any wiki entry…

  1. Ask “why is this entry here?”
  2. Understand the motivation behind the entry
  3. Doubt the entry’s truthfulness

If you can do this every time you read a wiki, you can actually use wiki to your research advantage.

What you should come to understand – and comprehend quickly – is that your purpose and wiki’s purpose are diametrically opposed. Your work – in the words of William Cronon – is to seek a “deeper, richer, more integrated knowledge” of the world, past societies, and how and where you fit in. Wiki’s job is to provide short, quick, and hopefully accurate entries which, unfortunately, are almost nearly devoid of any context. Wiki is, after all, just an encyclopedia.

To my current and future students: wiki – like your textbook – is but the beginning of a conversation. If you use wiki correctly, and I know you will, you will find that wiki points you to other primary and secondary sources for further research and reading, provides links to other websites on the same topic, and publishes a list of citations that can also guide you toward “deeper, richer, [and] more integrated knowledge…”

So no, you must never cite wiki as a source. But yes, use and abuse this cyber encyclopedia to give you necessary background, to fill in some knowledge gaps, and, more importantly, to guide you to places where you can conduct research and cite sources that count. You may, after all, sign up to become a member of wiki, and start making entries of your own, or better yet, become one of those wiki-cops policing the site for error and fraud.